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Hand Setting Research

Started by Inkstained, April 25, 2007, 01:28:36 AM

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I'm a writer. I'm working on a book about newspapers. In it I want to describe typesetting as it was done by hand in the early years of the 20th century. One of my characters was a one-man newspaper. He composed his articles by filling his stick. I'd be interested in corresponding with anyone who has that typesetting experience.


Not sure if your query about hand composing the news stories in metal as you compose them in your head is under the right topic heading for the best response. It certainly happened, but such people were uncommon, and if you are talking about the 1920s they will mostly be promoted to glory long since, so you are really looking to contact people who've done it more recently.

This forum is made up of people in quality rather than quantity, so if you haven't already done so, I'd suggest that you post your query on Letpress (if that's not burnt itself to the ground as a result of its habit of uncontrolled flaming) and maybe the Yahoo IntertypeWorld group too. Not sure how else you'd make contact with the people you want to correspond with.

On Letpress you'll need to think carefully about the subject heading you use, to encapsulate what you need in half a dozen words or so, and the thread will probably go on endlessly, but quickly diverting itself to some entirely different topic under the same original heading, unless they've cleaned their act up since I was there last.



Sorry, I misread "in the early years of the 20th century" as "in the 1920s". Doesn't really alter the answer though.

Dave Hughes

I would imagine that a newspaper from that period, hand set by one man, would bear no resemblance to a modern-day paper, particularly in respect of size.
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For the sort of newspaper that Inkstained describes, I'd think that we are mainly talking about small towns out on the prairies sort of background, and that Dave and I ought to be thinking in terms of similar UK operations of the same period to get an equivalent picture. There may well be surviving examples of such papers that could be examined.

My suspicion is that the amount of type set by hand for each issue might well be surprisingly small, with a lot higher proportion of standing type in the way of display ads than we'd be happy with, and that there might be a significant input of syndicated material in the form of electros or stereos, or even Lino slugs.

The page size would depend on the press that was used to produce it, and on the sources of supply of paper. In the early years of the 20th century railroads and horse drawn wagons would still be the primary means of freight transport, way out in the back of beyond.



Were you thinking of the number of pages such a paper would have, Dave, rather than page size?

I'd suspect that unless there were a lot of pages of standing type that didn't change from issue to issue, such a paper might well have a lot fewer pages than we'd be happy with, but that's assuming that we are talking about a weekly paper. I can envisage a situation where a paper came out more frequently than that, which if it was a one-man operation might well be essentially nothing more than a broadsheet of news and gossip, especially in a small town where steamboats called regularly, on the banks of the Mississippi or some other major navigable river.


Dave Hughes

I was thinking it might be a single double-sided sheet.
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I would think that there must be individuals out there - perhaps even a group - who are turned on by that sort of stuff and would instantly know the answer, in the same sort of way as we are turned on by metal type and linecasting stuff. After all, there's even a group for people who use Hollander beaters for small scale papermaking, and another for aficionados of the British magazine Practical Mechanics, which I think ceased publication after editor Camm died in the 1960s.


Tom B

In the  50s I completed my time in an advertisement typesetters. All our work was hand set and as we progressed to the end of our time we were expected to be expert at hand composition. How much we could set in a day depended, of course on the size of the type used. It was not possible to set type from your head straight to the stick as I am doing now with my laptop. Copy had to be prepared before even contemplating setting.
I therefore agree with those who say that it could only have been a weekly or single sheet production.

Steve Young

Though I finished my apprenticeship at the end of the 60s and was then high in the pecking order ... in the early days of my time I had to be able to use a composing stick and set directly out of a Californian style case. In fact I had to buy my own Cornerstone stick, it was 8 inches long and was measured in pica ems and a lot of money for me to find (less than four quid a week then). There were many older (previous century) sticks that were rubbed smooth by use and were locked into specific widths for specific jobs. The Ludlow made these almost redundant but when there was a particular typeface requested for an ad or headline which was only available from a case ... the youngest appy had to set it to "gain experience". I never used the stick once after completing my time. An old skill now departed. There were several complex jobs galley'ed away and tied with page cord that came out once a year or so, they were generally complex in the extreme and would take too long to re-set from scratch. Type had to be replaced in them every now and then ... the stick came in handy then!

Dan Williams

In the old typeshop, we had no less than three double cabinets and several single cabinets stocked with select foundry and in-house cast type (from Lanston Sorts Caster). Nothing less than fourteen point generally, and what we used these for were principally repros for body text used for architectural and related display applications. Sometimes the amount of text was significant, and lines needed to be broken up for the type, after proofing. Setting speed was high as this was typically 24 to 72 point and you can put away alot of ems with that size. We even had a VERY large horizontal camera with arc lamps and a velox frame for expanding the type beyond 72 point where necessary, and for modifying backgrounds. Man that was a fun era, in the early seventies. At that time, hand type coupled with a film department could kick butt, against that early computer technology. Yes, hand type and a camera.

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